What lies Beneath the Skin of the Face of Reb Yishmoel?

By RABBI SHAUL DOV FELMAN

BS”D
Vayechi 5764

In Parshas Vayechi, Yaakov Ovinu summons his children to his bedside in a very poignant moment and wants to reveal to his children what will come upon them in the end of days. We’ve been waiting all these years patiently, steadfast in our emunah, to see all the promises of the Torah materialize. There are different powers in the world that counter our beliefs and we continue nonetheless to beseech Hakadosh Boruch Hu for the Geuklah Shlaima bekarov.

The Gemmoro in Avodah Zarah 11b relates that the Roman Empire is accustomed to the following. Once every seventy years, they take a healthy man and place him on top of a lame man, clothe him in the garments of Odom Harishon, place on his head the skin of the face of Reb Yishmoel (Reb Yishmoel ben Elisha, the Cohein Gadol), adorn his neck with two hundred zuzim of precious stones and spread those stone in the streets. When they have finished setting the stage, they parade them through the streets. They call in front of them, “The promises that Yaakov promised his children (the reference is to Parshas Vayechi in which Yaakov calls his children together to reveal to them what will transpire in the end of days) were false. The brother of our master is a fraud! What did he benefit from all his trickery?” These are just some of the goings on at this parade. What the Romans were obviously depicting is the state of when Yaakov represented by the lame man, finds himself subservient to Eisav represented by the man on top. He has control of the whole world, the clothes of Odom Harishon, riches etc. However what is quite intriguing is what is possibly the meaning of taking the skin of the face of Reb Yishmoel and adorning the face of Eisav with that skin. What could that possibly represent? Aside from that, maybe we can possibly shed light why was it that Reb Yishmoel was the one that received this most cruel punishment of having the skin peeled off his face.

Let us begin by expounding somewhat on the story of the “Asara Harugei Malchus” “The Ten Martyrs” as related in the Medrash Aileh Ezkara. (This Medrash can be found in the more recent publications of the Kinnos of Tisha Baav.) The Medrash relates how the Caesar was studying the Torah and came across the sale of Yoseif by his brothers. The Medrash raises the following query. If Yoseif was so beautiful (the Torah goes out of its way to describe the beauty of Yoseif) why is it that the brothers were able to receive merely twenty coins for Yoseif as a slave? The Medrash reveals something fascinating based on the teachings of the Gemmoro in Shabbos. When the Torah points out that there was no water in the pit that his brothers threw Yoseif into, we are being hinted to that there were snakes and scorpions in the pit. When Yoseif saw this he became so frightened, that the beauty of his face left him. Ha-shem made sure that he was saved and he ultimately ended up down in Egypt. The Medrash relates that the Rabbis were summoned and were told that since the transgression of kidnapping and selling a fellow Jew is punishable with death, being that the brothers were never punished for their deeds, the rabbis would need to stand in their stead and receive the punishment. They asked for three days. In the meanwhile the smallest amongst them, Reb Yishmoel Coheine Gadol volunteered that if they are willing to share with him the punishment of uttering Ha-shem’s name in vein, he would be willing to go up to the heavens and see if this decree was acceptable above. If it was the will of Ha-shem, they would accept it. If not, they would annul it by the use of one of the Holy Names. Here the Medrash goes off onto a tangent as to the birth of Reb Yishmoel. It seems that the mother of Reb Yishmoel would constantly give birth to sons and they would inevitably die. Reb Elisha the Cohein Gadol suggested to his wife that they accept upon themselves a certain resolution in matters of modesty. Later when his wife immersed herself in the mikveh, when she came out she saw a pig. She immersed herself once again and she saw a leper. She immersed again and saw a camel. (All of the above are impure.) At that point Hakadosh Boruch Hu told the great heavenly angel, Metat-ron, that he should go stand in front of this woman in order that she should gaze upon him upon her exit from the bathhouse. He went down and stood on one side and the heavenly angel Gavriel stood on the other side adorned in beautiful clothes. She saw Gavriel and went home and that night Reb Yishmoel was conceived and he was as beautiful as Gavriel. Interestingly enough, whenever Reb Yishmoel would utter the Name of Ha-shem, a special wind would come and whisk him up to the sky and Gavriel would meet him and fulfil all his needs. In the Piyut that we recite on Yom Kippur, it seems that it was Gavriel that was of assistance to Reb Yishmoel when he rose to the heavens at this junction to investigate what the heavenly opinion was as far as this decree. Reb Yishmoel was informed that indeed the will of Ha-shem was that the decree should be accepted and they should not try to put a stop to its being carried out.

In describing the executions of the Ten Martyrs, the Medrash says that Reb Yishmoel was one of the even most beautiful men that ever lived. They are Odom Harishon, Yaakov, Yoseif, Shaul, Avshalom, Reb Avahu and Reb Yishmoel. When Reb Yishmoel was brought to Rome all the women that saw him menstruated. When he was brought to the Caesar, the Caesar asked him if there is anyone as beautiful as he is in the nation to which Reb Yishmoel replied in the negative. There was then the well-known question of who would be killed first Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, the Nasi, or Reb Yishmoel. They drew lots, which fell on Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel. After he was executed, it came the trn of Reb Yishmoel. When the daughter of the Caeser beheld the beauty of Reb Yishmoel she desired him. It was said, the Medrash continues that from the time of Yoesif there hadn’t been anyone as beautiful. She requested that his life be spared. Her request was denied. She continued and asked that at the very least, let the skin off his face be stripped and that it should be given to her. This request was fulfilled. The Medrash than goes on to discuss the circumstances of his death and the other Martyrs.

We discussed in last weeks Dvar Torah that the Asarah Harugei Malchus were “gilgulim” of the brothers that sold Yoseif. We showed various possibilities of who was represented and who was in place of whom. It seemed to me, and I later found this idea in the name of one our Kadmonim, that we might possibly establish that Reb Yishmoel was the “gilgul” of Yoseif. (See last week that Yoseif needed atonement as well, for due to his slandering his brothers, the whole sale came about.) Did we not see that the beauty of Reb Yishmoel hadn’t been seen in the world since the time of Yoseif? Reb Yishmoel was also the smallest of all his peers (as was mentioned earlier in the Medrash) just as Yoseif was the youngest of the brothers that are being held accountable for the sin. Reb Yishmoel was the Cohein Gadol who entered the “Kodesh Hakodoshim” in the Beis Hamikdosh, the most sacred of all places. We refer to that spot as Zion, the central point of the whole world from where all is influenced. The numerical value of the name of Yoseif is equal to that of Zion. Yoseif too was the source of influence of all when he ruled in Egypt. It is truly fitting that it was Reb Yishmoel that stood in Yoseif’s position during the era of this vicious decree.

Is it not interesting that the Malach Gavriel seems to be part and parcel of the story from beginning to end? When Yosief abides by his father’s command of going to check out the welfare of his brothers, who is it that he meets that directs him to his brothers and according to some opinions even brings him to his brothers? It was none other than the Malach Gavriel. Gavriel is also a main player in the birth of Reb Yishmoel who eventually will rectify Yoseif’s part in the sin. When Reb Yishmoel needs classified information as to what the will of the heavenly court is in reference to the decree, who would be more appropriate to bring the information other than Gavriel, who had been involved in the sale from it’s most earliest stage?

Another fascinating tidbit would be the most gruesome way in which Reb Yishmoel’s end came through the skinning of his face in the most torturous fashion. We mentioned that one wonders why him and why this way? After what we saw in the Medrash it becomes crystal clear. Let us remember what happened when Yoseif was thrown into the pit. We learned that due to tremendous fright, he was stripped of his beauty. If so it follows that Reb Yishmoel who stands in his stead should relive that experience. (This would apply as well if we would we learn as we suggested last week that Reb Yishmoel was a “gilgul” of Levi. Since Levi was one of the masterminds of the sale, it would be appropriate that he would be punished severely with what, due to his actions, had come upon Yoseif.)

We can now understand the message of the Romans in their escapades. We know that the “House of Yaakov” is compared to fire, the “House of Yoseif” to a flame and the “House of Eisav” to straw. Yaakov Ovinu understood that he could only face Eisav when he is armed with the strength of Yoseif. We see furthermore in Chazal that Amaleik, the descendant of Eisav and arch nemesis of Klal Yisroel will fall only in the hands of the grandchildren of Rochel. When they take the skin of the face of Reb Yishmoel, they are boasting to not only have the upper hand over Yaakov as is evident by the placement of the whole man on top of the lame man. They show that they have the skin of the face of Reb Yishmoel, which means they have neutralized the power of Yoseif as well. That is the greatest proof that Eisav rules and that Klal Yisroel are powerless. The strength of Yoseif has been neutralized.

We need to recall what the Roman Empire themselves recognize as the Gemmoro concludes in Avodah Zarah that the Romans themselves say “woe is to them (a reference to the Romans) when they (a reference to the Jews) will rise.” The goyim know that their days are numbered. The Parsha ends with Yoseif being laid to rest in the Nile. The strength and presence of Yoseif stayed with the Jews in Egypt and they were the inspiration for the Jews to stay strong despite the most difficult golus. Let us too, this week when Yoseif is niftar, cling on to the “Kedusha” of Yoseif in order to assure our perseverance during these very difficult times. We will then merit seeing the fulfillment of the Posuk that teaches us that the “Moshiim” will go up to Har Zion to judge Har Eisav and proclaim the kingdom of Ha-shem speedily in our day. Amein.

In Memory of Reb Avrohom Aba ben Reb Shaul Dov ZL

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